If you want to know what it’s like becoming and being an NFL football player then this book is a great start. The author takes an ethnographic approach by interviewing hundreds of players and spending a great deal of time with others at different levels of the journey. While it is an academic approach to the topic, the writing is clear, concise, and illuminating.
The author has a few key themes he puts forth to describe the process from high school to the pros. First, football at all levels he describes as a “totalizing institution.” That means if you truly aspire to go from one step to the next the player has to be all in and the institutions that control football also end up controlling the players life.
This leads to a second theme which the author calls the sports industrial complex. At each step of the journey the player’s life is dominated by the game and those that control it. Big time NCAA football profits greatly on the unpaid backs of all the athletes in profit generating sports and professional football is controlled by a club of billionaires who want to pay the athletes as little as they can get by with. There is a clear undercurrent that college and NFL athletes are exploited by these respective institutions, especially more marginal players who will never see the multi-millions of the uber gifted athletes.
He also describes the journey as a “tournament” that a player goes through to get to each level from high school to college and then the pros. Very, very few make it all the way to the pros and the more marginal players that do have to hang on desperately to stay in the game.
The author also touches on masculinity and the fear of admitting weakness, which cause many to ignore injuries or concussions and tough it out at their own detriment. It is also why players who may be suffering from mental illness may avoid seeking help at their peril.
For those that not only make it through the tournament but have longer than average NFL careers, much of the reason some suffer emotionally and in other ways (not including nagging injuries) is because their entire lives have been consumed and controlled by the game and upon exit there can be a cataclysmic void. Players who are unprepared emotionally and financially for it face a tough road after they exit the game.
Finally, there is a chapter about racism and how black athletes are disadvantaged (and black coaches more so) in the process. I won’t go into the arguments he makes here but if you think about the plight of Colin Kaepernick, whether you agree with him or not, that sheds some light on the issue. It’s a good chapter with some things I totally agree with and some a bit more questionable.
Overall, this was a illuminating look into the journey of the NFL athlete.